If you want to quickly determine if a white person in the United States is comfortably racist, I’d recommend a single question. Ask them, “Should our nation pay reparations to black people for the enslavement, mistreatment and economic exploitation of them and their ancestors over the past four hundred years?” If they immediately reject this proposition, you can be fairly confident you’ve identified a comfortable racist. On the other hand, if they’re willing to give this question serious consideration, you’ve probably identified an ethically responsible and racially conscious white person.  It’s really that simple.

There is simply no compelling argument against the payment of reparations. The studies and research have been done.  The historians, economists and ethicists have spoken.  While there can and should be considerable debate over how reparations should be made, any white person who argues against reparations is either ignorant, immoral, racist or all of the above.  Additionally, if you encounter someone opposed to paying reparations, you can be fairly certain they will offer one or all of the following three arguments…

“I have no responsibility. Neither I nor my ancestors owned slaves.”

Though I doubt most of these people have the genealogical support for their claim, such evidence would be irrelevant. The economic advantages of slavery were not limited to slave owners.  Though the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States in 1840 was in the Mississippi valley, the wealth created by slavery flowed north to the textile mills, banks and, ultimately, to every white family. Cotton was the single greatest economic driver in early American history. Without the millions of hours of slave labor provided by black people, the American economy would not have thrived.

The affluence generated by this labor, though unevenly divided amongst the white population, was limited to white people.  You didn’t have to be a slave owner to benefit from the enslavement of black people.  You only had to be white.  Indeed, the recognition of this reality fueled the strong southern support for defending slavery during the Civil War.  Though only a quarter of southern whites actually owned slaves, all of them were keenly aware of the benefits they produced.  Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, slaves constituted the single greatest financial asset in the United States.

While it is certainly possible to argue that some white people benefitted more from slavery than others, it is difficult to argue that even the poorest white person has received no benefit. And it is irrefutable that the chief producers of all of this immense wealth – black people – received absolutely no financial benefit from their labor.  More damning, in 1865 when they were freed from legal bondage, they were paid no back wages.  Most black people were left so destitute that they quickly became sharecroppers, which was often even more economically oppressive than slavery.

For these reasons, the huge disparities in accumulated wealth and economic status between white people and black people today have their roots in this historic injustice. Those who argue against reparations because they or their ancestors didn’t own slaves are like people who fill their homes with property they know was stolen from others.  They may not be thieves, but they are hardly examples of responsibility and integrity.  When forced to face this reality, they usually offer this argument.

“That was wrong, but it was long ago. I haven’t directly benefitted from racial injustice.”

Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the past, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our ancestors.  If we’re immoral and racist, we throw our ancestors under the bus.  We argue for our innocence and blamelessness.  We pretend the oppression of black people ended in 1865.  We ignore the evidence that most white people living today have directly benefitted from racial injustice.

As lucrative as slavery was, our ancestors weren’t the greatest beneficiaries of the oppression of black people. The single greatest economic increase in American wealth was not in the 1800s.  It happened in the years after World War II, between 1950 and 1970.  Billions and billions of dollars of wealth were created.  Indeed, this period marked the high water mark of the American middle class.  A vast majority of this wealth was intentionally limited by governmental policy to white people.

If you are white and bought a home or grew up in a home purchased between 1934 and 1977, you likely benefitted from government programs that awarded millions of tax dollars solely to white people. If you inherited a home purchased during those years, you reaped the spoils of racial injustice.  If you, your parents or grandparents went to college between 1944-1964, you likely benefitted from government programs that excluded black people from millions of dollars in educational grants.  If you, your parents or grandparents have received Social Security benefits, you have likely benefitted from a program that initially excluded up to 65% of all black people. It is difficult to find a single government policy between 1877 – when the Reconstruction ended – and 1977 that didn’t give preferential treatment to white people or exclude black people.

Indeed, most white people today are recipients of one of the greatest governmental affirmative action programs in history. Between 1934 and 1977, billions of tax dollars were funneled exclusively or primarily to white people.  Since any argument for equity would require an equal distribution of this government largesse, we can fairly say that the greatest recipients of racial injustice are not long dead slave owners, but middle class white people today.  When forced to face this reality, those who oppose reparations usually default to more obviously racist rhetoric.

“Well, that wasn’t fair, but what can you do. You can’t just give black people cash.  They’d just waste it.” (Or some other generally disparaging remark about black people.)

Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the present, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our present system and seek to rectify them.  If we’re immoral and racist, we throw black people under the bus.  In arguing for their inadequacy and incompetency, we verify our ancestry.  Like our forefathers, we justify the oppression of black people with the same paternal racist rhetoric.  We miss the obvious.  Once you’ve acknowledged the resources were stolen, what they do with any compensation is irrelevant.  It’s their money.

How reparations are paid shouldn’t be up to white people. I can’t imagine any court in the land that would leave the terms of compensation up to the thieves.  What we must do as a country is determine an appropriate amount of compensation for the damages done to generations of black people.  That’s going to be expensive.  And it should be.  The debt needs to be paid back with interest.

It is time for white people who are ethically responsible and racially conscious to voice our support for the payment of reparations.  It is time for our nation to finally pay its debts to the black people upon whose backs we’ve built the most prosperous nation in human history.  It is time to ask black people to tell us how they want us to make these payments.  It is far past time.  And when some white people complain of the injustice of it all, we who are ethically responsible and racially conscious must identify that opposition for what it has always been – racist and immoral.

(Special thanks to Ta-Nehesi Coates’ for his essay, “The Case For Reparations,” which should be required reading for every white person in America. My short post is a poor reflection of this masterful essay.)

(This post is part of a three part series.  The second post is entitled “A Reasonable Reparation.”  The third post is entitled “Paying My Reparations.”

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228 thoughts on “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question

  1. Excellent and thought-provoking as always! I was thinking about reparations as it’s been in the news recently and wanting to learn more. And thinking, how in the world will our citizens ever come to an agreement! However, it must be done! It will be a long, hard, difficult lesson where we come to grips with our history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, the Sins of the Father argument. Coupled with “if you don’t believe what I believe you’re dead wrong.” These strains of thought are deeply rooted in religion, and are responsible for much of the violence throughout history.

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    1. I always find such philosophical misdirection interesting in response to the reparations argument. Certainly religion has been at the core of considerable violence in the world and central to supporting racism in the Americas. However, ethical responsibility is a far cry from a “sins of the fathers” argument. Finally, sometimes people are dead wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. How about at least making it easier to vote and equivalent education and housing since most of the wealth of white citizens came from the FHA loans that were not made available to people of color in the 1930 – 40 – 50s. Not that long ago. And for Native Americans the least we could do in the beginning is to honor the Treaties.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Why not ask the same question concerning the mistreatment and genocide of native Americans and ask if we should give them their country back?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Completely fair question and one I’ve handled in more detail repeatedly in responding to previous comments. In short, identifying additional inequities is never an argument against addressing a inequity. I would suggest white Americans have responsibility to rectify many past injuries.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What about the African tribes than captured their countrymen and sold them to the slavers to start with? Do they not share some of the guilt as well? And the Dutch slave ships that transported at least some slaves?

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      2. When it comes to slavery, there is plenty of guilt to assign. None of that changes the fact that white people in the United States were and are the primary beneficiaries of nearly 400 years of industrial slavery and economic exploitation. As a parent, I have absolutely no patience when my children argue, “I wasn’t the only one.” My concern is about their responsibility. The same would apply to discussions about slavery. Suggesting white Americans “weren’t the only ones” seems like a dodge or excuse.

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  4. “If you want to quickly determine if a white person in the United States is comfortably racist, I’d recommend a single question. Ask them, “Should our nation pay reparations to black people for the enslavement, mistreatment and economic exploitation of them and their ancestors over the past four hundred years?” If they immediately reject this proposition, you can be fairly confident you’ve identified a comfortable racist. On the other hand, if they’re willing to give this question serious consideration, you’ve probably identified an ethically responsible and racially conscious white person. It’s really that simple.”

    The absurdity of this statement is that it fails to take into account the culpability of many Africans and especially North African Muslims in slavery. It is NOT really that simple. Additionally, it fails to recognize that the average man and woman in Europe did not have any power or much say in what was going on. They were often trapped in an unjust system too. Even Henry Lewis Gates admits that there is no simple answer even if he wishes that there were. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/23/opinion/23gates.html

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    1. Dana, you are missing the salient point. The question is not whether one agrees with any specific suggestion about reparations. The question is whether a white person is willing to give the question of reparations serious consideration. As to culpability, I have never found the “he did it, too” a compelling argument against responsibility. Certainly, as you and Gates suggest, how to implement reparations is not a simple question. What white resistance to the discussion signifies is fairly obvious.

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  5. Well, nobody could possibly disagree with you without being a racist.

    You have framed the argument in pure black and white terms (pun intended).

    I think it’s safe to say that a majority of Trumpers are racist. But they are also homophobic and supposedly religious. However they are mostly ignorant and lack intelligence. The out-of-hand rejection of climate science and quoting scripture as proof that there is no such thing as climate change is a clear indicator of the challenge in front of us. Remember these are the same people who think Trump doesn’t lie as he approaches or surpasses lie number 11,000 since taking the Oath.

    We can’t even get police officers fired for murdering African Americans let alone convicted of a crime.

    So the idea that reparations will ever happen is pure fantasy no matter how you attempt to guilt White people about their complicity.

    Affirmative Action is on the ropes and society is sliding backwards regarding social justice.

    Their racism, ignorance and hatred toward African Americans, LGBT people and generally “the other” has been legitimized by an illigitimate President.

    Good luck with your approach. It is dead on arrival.

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    1. I don’t share your pessimism. For the first time in the history of our nation, the Congress is holding hearing on reparations. Presidential candidates are actually talking about it. However, I encourage you to read the third of the three posts in this series, entitled “Paying My Reparations.” I believe each of us can advance this cause even without governmental action.

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      1. Do you wonder if the recent hearings and discussion of reparations is a campaign tactic by the Democratic party, or do you think there is actual momentum? This upcoming election includes candidates in favor of reparations, in favor of a universal basic income, in favor of free college tuition, in favor of universal healthcare, all crafted to appeal to the young voter, the minority voter, the low income voter.

        Then what?

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  6. One aspect that is never mentioned is that many of us are “recent immigrants”. What share of reparations would we be expected to pay? I arrived in 1966.

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    1. However, if you are a white immigrant, you entered a system where you immediately benefited simply by being white. Most reparational models are more about repairing inequities than sorting out individual culpability and responsibility. Reducing the discussion to who writes and who receives checks misses the more global concerns.

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  7. What’s interesting is, the only people opposing reparations and posing arguments are white people. That’s what we do and have always done. In the beginning we controlled and dehumanized mass populations of African slaves, we argue against civil rights and today we still try to dictate and control how black people work towards equality and equity. Racial conversations/issues is something us white people have a defensive time talking about. We need to change that.

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  8. In reading your articles about reparations, I am struggling to follow your logic. There are many black Americans who are offering hopeful solutions that are also very much opposed to the idea of reparations. I fail to see how listening to their experience and trusting their leadership on these issues would be supporting a racist ideology. The party who is pushing for reparations is the same party who oppressed them with Jim Crow laws, attempted to obliterate their race with abortion and voted against civil rights. It would only make sense that similar policy ideas would be met with some skepticism. Many black people who have found the courage to abandon that victimhood see reparations as just another assault on their dignity and the latest attempt to buy their votes. I have been so encouraged to see the leadership that many of them are taking within their communities and across our great nation. They are a strong, beautiful group of people who have overcome so much adversity and injustice. Let’s honor them by applauding that legacy of resilience. Let’s celebrate with them the many ways they contributed to the building of our nation. They should be seen as fellow citizens, not our favorite charity. Respecting their equality is so much more meaningful than preferential treatment that suggests that they can never succeed without the help of guilty white people. I just think that there are several arguments that could be made against reparations that would not be ignorant, immoral or racist.

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    1. Melisa, thanks for your thoughtful response. Let me respond to several of your points. First, certainly there are blacks who do not support reparations. I also think you are correct in suggesting many of them are rightfully suspicious of any “solution” offered by whites. However, reparations is not a “white solution.” It has always been advocated and promoted by black leaders from Douglas to King to Coates. We also know that those blacks who oppose reparations are a minority. If you or I, as white people, choose to support blacks who argue a position that a majority of whites hold – that reparations are unnecessary – isn’t that suspicious? As to the argument that the Democrats are suspect because they were the party of segregation in the past, this is obviously either a uninformed or deceptive argument. I think you probably know the history of Southern politics and that southern whites only became Republican because the Democrats abandoned their previously racist policies. Unfortunately, the Republican party of today is most like the Democratic party of 1950. However, I think it could also be argued the Democrats are right to try to rectify something their party helped to construct. Finally, while I share your opinion of the resilience of black Americans, I find your use of the term “victimhood” to describe those seeking reparations offensive and racist. Would you lay this same claim on a woman who was raped or a child who was molested? Blacks are not making up some feigned or false injury for attention or profit. They are identifying a long history of abuse, violence and oppression. That you don’t see the justice of their complaint is troubling.

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  9. Several areas where I will offer more clarity in my position. I wasn’t making the point that reparations were a “white solution.” My point was that there are valid reasons for being opposed to reparations without being ignorant, immoral or racist. The party that is offering reparations isn’t defined by one color or another. It is a policy issue. Not a race issue. I am not for or against a policy based on the color of the skin of the person introducing it. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime to repeat that mistake. I have to learn from others in order to make forward progress. I always look for outcomes of independence and dignity and it is very easy to find which policies and ideas promote that. The policies currently being introduced deal only with slavery and are serving as a mask to hide the policies that will continue destroying black families and communities. Becoming a victim is always tragic and never something we can control or be responsible for in any circumstance. That goes for rape, slavery, and any kind of abuse or injustice. Victimhood is when my mind remains locked in at the value my oppressor has placed on my life. Freedom is found when those offering help remind me that I was created with value that no injustice can steal from me. They remind me that the trajectory of my future is not determined by the things I couldn’t control in my past. I don’t think that reparations offer the help that reminds people of their created value. Reparations, whether personal or by policy, is just a reminder that they will always need the white man to help them. It says they need to be given advantage in order to achieve anything of worth. Once again I state that equality and partnership starts when we stop viewing them as our favorite charity.

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    1. Again, I really appreciate your thoughtfulness. While I think we are going to disagree on the usefulness of reparations, I appreciate the values you are working from – dignity and independence. However, I don’t think those have to be in conflict with reparational models. First, let’s me clear. Reparations are not charity – white people “giving” something to black people. Reparations are the payment of a debt. They reflect a white deficiency and not a black one. We have no made compensation for the injuries we caused. I don’t think we’d accuse anyone who asked us to repay a debt of acting out of victimhood. Finally, I think you need to read more broadly. I would recommend beginning with the website of NCOBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations In America. I think you will find their policy suggestions are much more nuanced and comprehensive than you imply. These are not people working to destroy black families.

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    2. You claim that the policy or bill being introduced is only dealing with slavery? That is false. I think if you go to the proposed bill by senator Booker, you will learn that slavery is only part of how reparations will contribute to black people and their families. Below is a excerpt from the bill. So, as you can see it’s about continued discrimination towards black people.

      “We cannot address the institutional racism and white supremacy that has economically oppressed African-Americans for generations without first fully documenting the extent of the harms of slavery and its painful legacy. It’s important that we right the wrongs of our nation’s most discriminatory policies, which halted the upward mobility of African-American communities,” said Senator Booker. “I’m encouraged to see this legislation to study the issue gain support in Congress and the shared commitment my colleagues have in doing our part to repair the harm done to African Americans.

      “We cannot address the institutional racism and white supremacy that has economically oppressed African-Americans for generations without first fully documenting the extent of the harms of slavery and its painful legacy. It’s important that we right the wrongs of our nation’s most discriminatory policies, which halted the upward mobility of African-American communities,” said Senator Booker. “I’m encouraged to see this legislation to study the issue gain support in Congress and the shared commitment my colleagues have in doing our part to repair the harm done to African-Americans.”

      Not only does racism and discrimination still continue, black people are still dealing with generational oppression. The affects of slavery, civil rights, redlining, mortgage discrimination, etc are still very much felt and experienced today. It would be inhumane to not make amends this way.

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